Tramping Through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras
By Harry A. Franck
THE UPS AND DOWNS OF HONDURAS
The train carried me back up the river to Zacapa, desert dry and stingingly hot with noonday. Report had it that there was a good road to Jocotán by way of Chiquimula, but the difference between a “buen camino” and a mere “road” is so slight in Central America that I concluded to follow the more direct trail. The next essential was to change my wealth into Honduranean silver, chiefly in coins of one real, corresponding in value to an American nickel; for financial transactions were apt to be petty in the region ahead of me. In the collection I gathered among the merchants of Zacapa were silver dollars of Mexico, Salvador, Chile, and Peru, all of which stand on terms of perfect equality with the peso of Honduras, worth some forty cents. My load was heavier, as befitted an exit from even quasi-civilization. The rucksack was packed with more than fourteen pounds, not counting kodak and weapon, and for the equivalent of some thirty cents in real money I had acquired in the market of Guatemala City a hammock, more exactly a sleeping-net, made of a species of grass by the Indians of Cobán.
Under all this I was soon panting up through the once cobbled village of Zacapa and across a rising sand-patch beyond, cheered on by the parting information that the last traveler to set out on this route had been killed a few miles from town for the $2 or so he carried. Mine would not have been any particular burden in a level or temperate country, but this was neither. The sun hung so close it felt like some immense red-hot ingot swinging overhead in a foundry. The road—and in Central America that word seldom represents anything better than a rocky, winding trail with rarely a level yard—sweated up and down sharp mountain faces, picking its way as best it could over a continual succession of steep lofty ridges. Even before I lost the railway to view I was dripping wet from cap to shoes, drops fell constantly from the end of my nose, and my eyes stung with salt even though I plunged my face into every stream. My American shoes had succumbed on the tramp to Retalhuleu and the best I had been able to do in Guatemala City was to squander $45 for a pair of native make and chop them down into Oxfords. These, soaked in the jungle of Quiraguá, now dried iron-stiff in the sun and barked my feet in various places.
I had crossed four ranges and was winding along a narrow, dense-grown valley when night began to fall. The rumors of foul play led me to keep a hand hanging loose near my weapon, though the few natives I met seemed friendly enough. Darkness thickened and I was planning to swing my hammock among the trees when I fell upon the hut of Coronado Cordón. It was a sieve-like structure of bamboo, topped by a thick palm-leaf roof, with an outdoor mud fireplace, and crowded with dogs, pigs, and roosted fowls. Coronado himself, attired in the remnants of a pair of cotton trousers, greeted me from his hammock.
“May I pass the night with you?”
“To be sure, señor. You may sleep on this bench under the roof.”
But I produced my hammock and he swung it for me from two bamboo rafters of the low projecting eaves, beside his own and that of a horseman who had also sought hospitality, where a steady breeze swept through. His wife squatted for an hour or more over the fireplace, and at length I sat down—on the ground—to black coffee, frijoles, tortillas, and a kind of Dutch cheese.
Long before morning I was too cold, even under most of the contents of my pack, to sleep soundly. It was December and the days were short for tramping. This one did not begin to break until six and I had been awake and ready since three. Coronado slept on, but his señora arose and, covering her breasts with a small apron, took to grinding corn for tortillas. These with coffee and two eggs dropped for a moment in hot water, after a pin-hole had been broken in each, made up my breakfast, and brought my bill up to nearly eleven cents.
I was off in the damp dawn. Any enumeration of the rocky, slippery, twisting trails by which I panted up and over perpendicular mountain ridges under a burning sun without the shadow of a cloud, would be wearisome. Sweat threatened to ruin even the clothing in my bundle, it soaked even belt and holster, rusting the weapon within it, and leaving a visible trail behind me. Once, at the careless nod of an Indian, I strained up an all but perpendicular slope, only to have the trail end hundreds of feet above the river in a fading cow-path and leave me to climb down again. Farther on it dodged from under my feet once more and, missing a reputed bridge, forced me to ford a chest-deep river which all but swept me away, possessions and all, at the first attempt.
Jocotán, on the farther bank, was a lazy, sunbaked village the chief industry of which seemed to be swinging in hammocks, though I did manage to run to earth the luxury of a dish of tough meat. Comotán was close beyond, then came two hours straight up to a region of pine-trees with vistas of never-ending mountains everywhere dense-forested, the few adobe or bamboo huts tucked in among them being as identically alike as the inhabitants. These were almost obsequious peons, wearing a sort of white pajamas and moderate-sized straw hats, all strangely clean. Each carried a machete, generally with a curved point, and not a few had guns. Toward evening I struck a bit of level going amid dense vegetation without a breath of air along the bank of a river that must be forded lower down, which fact I took advantage of to perpetrate a general laundering. This proved unwise, for the sun went down before the garments had dried and left me to lug on along the stream those the unexacting customs of the country did not require me to put on wet. Every hundred yards the trail went swiftly down into the stony bed of a tributary, with or without water, and clambered breathlessly out again. A barked heel had festered and made every other step painful.
It was more than an hour after dark that I sweated into the aldea of Chupá, so scattered that as each hut refused me lodging I had to hobble on a considerable distance to the next. The fourth or fifth refusal I declined to accept and swung my hammock under the eaves. A woman was cooking on the earth floor for several peon travelers, but treated me only with a stony silence. One of the Indians, however, who had been a soldier and was more friendly or less suspicious of “gringoes,” divided with me his single tortilla and bowl of frijoles. The family slept on dried cowskins spread on the bare earth.
Food was not to be had when I folded my hammock and pushed on at daylight. One of a cluster of huts farther up was given over to a squad of “soldiers,” garrisoning the frontier, and an officer who would have ranked as a vagabond in another country sold me three tortillas and a shellful of coffee saved from his rations. Another cluster of huts marked the beginning of a stiff rocky climb, beyond which I passed somewhere in a swampy stretch of uninhabited ground the invisible boundary and entered Honduras, the Land of Great Depths.
It was indeed. Soon a vast mountain covered with pine forest rose into the sky ahead and two hours of unbroken climbing brought me only to the rim of another great wooded valley scolloped out of the earth and down into which I went all but headfirst into the town of Copán. Here, as I sat in a fairly easy chair in the shaded corner of a barnyard among pigs, chickens, and turkeys while my tortillas were preparing, I got the first definite information as to the tramp before me. Tegucigalpa, the capital, was said to be fifteen days distant by mule. On foot it might prove a trifle less. But if transportation in the flesh was laborious and slow, the ease of verbal communication partly made up for it. A telegram to the capital cost me the sum total of one real. It should have been a real and a quarter, but the telegraph operator had no change!
Beyond the town I found with some difficulty the gate through which one must pass to visit the ancient ruins of Copán. Once inside it, a path led through jungle and tobacco fields and came at length to a great artificial mound, originally built of cut-stone, but now covered with deep grass and a splendid grove of immense trees, until in appearance only a natural hill remained. About the foot of this, throttled by vegetation, lay scattered a score or more of carved stones, only one or two of which were particularly striking. Summer solitude hovered over all the scene.
Back again on the “camino real” I found the going for once ideal. The way lay almost level along a fairly wide strip of lush-green grass with only a soft-footed, eight-inch path marking the route, and heavy jungle giving unbroken shade. Then came a hard climb, just when I had begun to hear the river and was laying plans for a drink and a swim, and the trail led me far up on the grassy brow of a mountain, from which spread a vast panorama of pine-clad world. But the trails of Honduras are like spendthrift adventurers, struggling with might and main to gain an advantage, only wantonly to throw it away again a moment later. This one pitched headlong down again, then climbed, then descended over and again, as if setting itself some useless task for the mere pleasure of showing its powers of endurance. It subsided at last in the town of Santa Rita, the comandante of which, otherwise a pleasant enough fellow, took me for a German. It served me right for not having taken the time to shave my upper lip. He had me write my name on a slip of paper and bade me adiós with the information that if “my legs were well oiled” I could make the hacienda Jarral by nightfall.
I set a good pace along the flat, shaded, grassy lane beside the river, promising myself a swim upon sighting my destination. But the tricky trail suddenly and unexpectedly led me far up on a mountain flank and down into Jarral without again catching sight or sound of the stream. There were three or four palm-leaf huts and a large, long hacienda building, unspeakably dirty and dilapidated. The estate produced coffee, heaps of which in berry and kernel stood here and there in the dusk. The owner lived elsewhere; for which no one could blame him. I marched out along the great tile-floored veranda to mention to the stupid mayordomo the relationship of money and food. He referred me to a filth-encrusted woman in the cavern-like kitchen, where three soiled and bedraggled babies slept on a dirtier reed mat on the filthy earth floor, another in a hammock made of a grain sack and two pieces of rope, amid dogs, pigs, and chickens, not to mention other unpleasantnesses, including a damp dungeon atmosphere that ought early to have proved fatal to the infants. When she had sulkily agreed to prepare me tortillas, I returned to ask the way to the river. The mayordomo cried out in horror at the notion of bathing at night, pointing out that there was not even a moon, and prophesying a fatal outcome of such foolhardiness and gringo eccentricity. His appearance suggested that he had also some strong superstition against bathing by day.
I stumbled nearly a mile along to-morrow’s road, stepping now and then into ankle-deep mud puddles, before reaching the stream, but a plunge into a stored-up pool of it was more than ample reward. “Supper” was ready upon my return, and by asking the price of it at once and catching the woman by surprise I was charged only a legitimate amount. When I inquired where I might swing my hammock, the enemy of bathing pointed silently upward at the rafters of the veranda. These were at least ten feet above the tiled floor and I made several ineffectual efforts before I could reach them at all, and then only succeeded in hanging my sleeping-net so that it doubled me up like a jack-knife. Rearranging it near the corner of the veranda, I managed with great effort to climb into it, but to have fallen out would have been to drop either some eight feet to the stone-flagged door or twenty into the cobbled and filthy barnyard below. The chances of this outcome were much increased by the necessity of using a piece of old rope belonging to the hacienda, and a broken arm or leg would have been pleasant indeed here in the squalid wilderness with at least a hundred miles of mule-trail to the nearest doctor.
Luckily I only fell asleep. Several men and dirtier boys, all in what had once been white garments, had curled up on bundles of dirty mats and heaps of bags all over the place, and the night was a pandemonium of their coughing, snoring, and night-maring, mingled with the hubbub of dogs, roosters, turkeys, cattle, and a porcine multitude that snuggled in among the human sleepers. The place was surrounded by wet, pine-clad mountains, and the damp night air drifting in upon me soon grew cold and penetrating.
Having had time to collect her wits, the female of the dungeon charged me a quadrupled price for a late breakfast of black coffee and pin-holed eggs, and I set off on what turned out to be a not entirely pleasant day’s tramp. To begin with I had caught cold in a barked heel, causing the cords of the leg to swell and stiffen. Next I found that the rucksack had worn through where it came in contact with my back; third, the knees of the breeches I wore succumbed to the combination of sweat and the tearing of jungle grasses; fourth, the garments I carried against the day I should again enter civilization were already rumpled and stained almost beyond repair; and, fifth, but by no means last, the few American bills I carried in a secret pocket had been almost effaced by humidity and friction. Furthermore, the “road” completely surpassed all human powers of description. When it was not splitting into a half-dozen faint paths, any one of which was sure to fade from existence as soon as it had succeeded in leading me astray in a panting chase up some perpendicular slope, it was splashing through mud-holes or small rivers. At the first stream I squandered a half-hour disrobing and dressing again, only to find that some two hundred yards farther on it swung around once more across the trail. Twice it repeated that stale practical joke. At the fourth crossing I forestalled it by marching on, carrying all but shirt and hat,—and got only sunburn and stone-bruises for my foresight, for the thing disappeared entirely. Still farther on I attempted to save time by crossing another small river by a series of stepping-stones, reached the middle of it dry-shod, looked about for the next step, and then carefully lay down at full length, baggage and all, in the stream as the stone turned over under my feet. But by that time I needed another bath.
An old woman of La Libertad, a collection of mud huts wedged into a little plain between jungled mountain-sides, answered my hungry query with a cheery “Cómo no!” and in due time set before me black beans and blacker coffee and a Honduranean tortilla, which are several times thicker and heavier than those of Mexico and taste not unlike a plank of dough.
Though often good-hearted enough, these children of the wilderness have no more inkling of any line between dirt and cleanliness, nor any more desire to improve their conditions, themselves, or their surroundings, which we of civilized lands think of as humanity’s privilege and requirement, than the mangy yellow curs that slink in and out between their legs and among their cooking pots. I had yet to see in Honduras a house, a garment, a single possession, or person that was anything short of filthy.
As I ate, a gaunt and yellow youth arrived with a rag tied about his brow, complaining that a fever had overtaken him on a steep mountain trail and left him helpless for hours. I made use for the first time of the small medicine case I carried. Then the old woman broke in to announce that her daughter also had fever. I found a child of ten tossing on a miserable canvas cot in the mud hut before which I sat, her pulse close to the hundred mark. When I had treated her to the best of my ability, the mother stated that a friend in a neighboring hut had been suffering for more than a week with chills and fever, but that she was “embarrassed” and must not take anything that might bring that condition prematurely to a head. I prescribed not without some layman misgiving. Great astonishment spread throughout the hamlet when I refused payment for my services, and the old woman not only vociferously declined the coin I proffered for the food, but bade me farewell with a vehement “Diós se lo pagará”—whether in Honduranean change or not she did not specify. The majority of the inhabitants of the wilds of Honduras live and die without any other medical attention than those of a rare wandering charlatan or pill-peddler.
Beyond was a rising path through dense steaming jungle, soon crossed by the ubiquitous river. Across it, near a pretty waterfall, the trail climbed up and ever up through jungle and forest, often deep in mud and in places so steep I had to mount on all fours, slipping back at each step like the proverbial frog in the well. A splendid virgin forest surrounded me, thick with undergrowth, the immense trees whispering together far above. A half-hour up, the trail, all but effaced, was cut off by a newly constructed rail fence tied together with vines run through holes that had been pierced in the buttresses of giants of the forest. There was no other route in sight, however, and I climbed the obstruction and sweated another half-hour upward. A vista of at least eight heavily wooded ranges opened out behind me, not an inch of which was not covered with dense-green treetops. Far up near the gates of heaven I came upon a sun-flooded sloping clearing planted with tobacco, and found a startled peon in the shade of a make-shift leaf hut. Instead of climbing the hill by this private trail, I should immediately have crossed the river again more than an hour below and continued on along it!
When he had recovered from the fright caused by so unexpected an apparition, the Indian yielded up his double-bodied gourd and made no protest when I gurgled down about half the water he had carried up the mountain for his day’s thirst. That at least was some reward for the useless climb, for there is no greater physical pleasure than drinking one’s fill of clear cold water after a toilsome tropical tramp. I crashed and slid down to the river again and picked up once more the muddy path along it between dense walls of damp jungle. It grew worse and worse, falling in with a smaller stream and leaping back and forth across it every few yards, sometimes permitting me to dodge across like a tight-rope walker on wet mossy stones, more often delaying me to remove shoes and leggings. An hour of this and the scene changed. A vast mountain wall rose before me, and a sharp rocky trail at times like steps cut by nature in the rock face led up and up and still forever upward. A score of times I seemed to have reached the summit, only to find that the trail took a new turn and, gathering up its skirts, climbed away again until all hope of its ever ceasing its sweating ascent faded away. After all it was perhaps well that only a small portion of the climb was seen at a time; like life itself, the appalling sight of all the difficulties ahead at once might discourage the climber from ever undertaking the task.
It was near evening when I came out in a slight clearing on what was at last really the summit. Vast forests of whispering pine-trees surrounded me, and before and behind lay an almost endless vista of heavily wooded, tumbled mountains, on a low one of which, near at hand but far below, could be seen the scattered village of San Augustín. There was still a long hour down the opposite face of the mountain, with thinner pine forests and the red soil showing through here and there; not all down either, for the trail had the confirmed habit of falling into bottomless sharp gullies every few yards and struggling out again up the steepest of banks, though the privilege of thrusting my face into the clear mountain stream at the bottom of each made me pardon these monotonous vagaries. After surmounting six or eight such mountain ranges in a day, under a sun like ours of August quadrupled and some twenty pounds of awkward baggage, without what could reasonably be called food, to say nothing of festered heels and similar petty ailments, the traveler comes gradually by nightfall to develop a desire to spend ten minutes under the electric fans of a “Baltimore Lunch.”
Yet with all its difficulties the day had been more than enjoyable, wandering through endless virgin forests swarming with strange and beautiful forms of plant and bird life, with rarely a habitation or a fellow-man to break the spell of pure, unadulterated nature. For break it these did. As the first hut of San Augustín intruded itself in the growing dusk there ran unbidden through my head an ancient refrain:
“Plus je vois l’homme, plus j’aîme mon chien.”
Nearer the center of the collection I paused to ask a man leaning against his mud doorway whether he knew any one who would give me posada. The eagerness with which he offered to do so himself gave me visions of an exorbitant bill in the morning, but it turned out that he was merely anxious for the “honor” of lodging a stranger. This time I slept indoors. My host himself swung my hammock from two of the beams in his large, single-room house made of slats filled in with mud. Though a man of some education, subscriber to a newspaper of Salvador and an American periodical in Spanish, and surrounded by pine forests, it seemed never to have occurred to him to try to better his lot even to the extent of putting in a board floor. His mixture of knowledge and ignorance was curious. He knew most of the biography of Edison by heart, but thought Paris the capital of the United States and the population of that country 700,000.
In the house the only food was tortillas, but across the “street” meat was for sale. It proved to be tough strips a half-inch square of sun-dried beef hanging from the rafters. I made another suggestion, but the woman replied with a smile half of amusement half of sorrow that all the chickens had died. A few beans were found, and, as I ate, several men drifted into the hut and gradually and diffidently fell to asking strange and childish questions. It is hard for those of us trained to democracy and accustomed to intercourse only with “civilized” people to realize that a bearded man of forty, with tall and muscular frame, may have only an infantile grade of intelligence, following the conversation while it is kept on the plane of an eight-year-old intellect, but incapable of grasping any real thought, and staring with the open-mouthed naïveté of a child.
Tobacco is grown about San Augustín, and every woman of the place rolls clumsy cigars and cigarettes as incessantly as those of other parts knit or sew. The wife and daughter of my host were so engaged when I returned, toiling leisurely by the light of pine splinters; for rural Honduras has not yet reached the candle stage of progress. For a half-real I bought thirty cigarettes of the size of a lead-pencil, made of the coarse leaves more fitted to cigars. The man and wife, and the child that had been stark naked ever since my arrival, at length rolled up together on a bundle of rags on the dank earth floor, the daughter of eighteen climbed a knotched stick into a cubbyhole under the roof, and when the pine splinter flickered out I was able for the first night in Honduras to get out of my knee-cramping breeches and into more comfortable sleeping garments. The festered heel gave me considerable annoyance. A bread and milk poultice would no doubt have drawn the fever out of it, but even had any such luxury been obtainable I should have applied it internally. During the night I awoke times without number. Countless curs, that were to real dogs what these people are to civilized races, howled the night hideous, as if warning the village periodically of some imaginary danger, suggested perhaps by the scent of a stranger in their midst. Sometime in the small hours two youths, either drunk or enamored of the bedraggled senorita in the cubbyhole above, struck up a mournful, endless ballad of two unvarying lines, the one barely heard, the other screeching the eternal refrain until the night shuddered with it. All the clothing I possessed was not enough to keep me warm both above and below.
One of the chief difficulties of the road in Honduras is the impossibility of arousing the lazy inhabitants in time to prepare some suggestion of breakfast at a reasonably early hour. For to set off without eating may be to fast all the hot and laborious day. The sun was already warm when I took up the task of picking my way from among the many narrow, red, labyrinthian paths that scattered over the hill on which San Augustín reposes and radiated into the rocky, pine-forested, tumbled mountain world surrounding it. Some one had said the trail to Santa Rosa was easy and comparatively level. But such words have strange meanings in Honduras. Not once during the day did there appear a level space ten yards in length. Hour after hour a narrow path, one of a score in which to go astray, worn in the whitish rock of a tumbled and irregular series of soft sandstone ridges with thin forests of pine or fir, clambered and sweated up and down incessantly by slopes steeper than any stairway, until I felt like the overworked chambermaid of a tall but elevator-less hotel. My foot was much swollen, and to make things worse the region was arid and waterless. Once I came upon a straggling mud village, but though it was half-hidden by banana and orange groves, not even fruit could be bought. Yet a day or two before some scoundrel had passed this way eating oranges constantly and strewing the trail with the tantalizing peelings; a methodical, selfish, bourgeois fellow, who had not had the humane carelessness to drop a single fruit on all his gluttonous journey.
When I came at last, at the bottom of a thigh-straining descent, upon the first stream of the day, it made up for the aridity behind, for the path had eluded me and left me to tear through the jungle and wade a quarter mile before I picked up the trail again. Refreshed, I began a task before which I might have turned back had I seen it all at once. Four mortal waterless hours I toiled steeply upward, more than twenty times sure I had reached the summit, only to see the trail, like some will-o’-the-wisp, draw on ahead unattainably in a new direction. I had certainly ascended four thousand feet when I threw myself down at last among the pines of the wind-swept summit. A draught from the gourd of a passing peon gave me new life for the corresponding descent. Several of these fellow-roadsters now appeared, courteous fellows, often with black mustaches and imperial à la Napoleon III, who raised their hats and greeted me with a sing-song “Qué se vaya bien,” yet seemed remarkably stupid and perhaps a trifle treacherous. At length, well on in the afternoon, the road broke through a cutting and disclosed the welcome sight of the town of Santa Rosa, its white church bulking above all else built by man; the first suggestion of civilization I had seen in Honduras.
The suggestion withered upon closer examination. The place did not know the meaning of the word hotel, there was neither restaurant, electric light, wheeled vehicles, nor any of the hundred and one things common to civilized towns of like size. After long inquiry for lodging, I was directed to a pharmacy. The connection was not apparent until I found that an American doctor occupied there a tiny room made by partitioning off with a strip of canvas stretched on a frame a part of the public hallway to the patio. He was absent on his rounds; which was fortunate, for his Cuban interpreter not merely gave me possession of the “room” and cot, but delivered to me the doctor’s supper of potatoes, rice, an imitation of bread, and even a piece of meat, when it arrived from a market-place kitchen. Here I spent Sunday, with the extreme lassitude following an extended tramp in the hungry wilderness. The doctor turned up in the afternoon, an imposing monument of a man from Texas with a wild tangle of dark-brown beard, and the soft eyes and gentle manners of a girl. He had spent some months in the region, more to the advantage of the inhabitants than his own, for disease was far more wide spread than wealth, and the latter was extremely elusive even where it existed. Hookworm was the second most common ailment, with cancer and miscarriages frequent. The entire region he had found virtually given over to free love. The grasping priests made it all but impossible for the poorer classes to marry, and the custom had rather died out even among the well-to-do. All but two families of the town acknowledged illegitimate children, there was not a priest nor a youth of eighteen who had not several, and more than one widow of Honduranean wealth and position whose husband had long since died continued to add yearly to the population. The padre of San Pedro, from whose house he had just come, boasted of being the father of eighty children. All these things were common knowledge, with almost no attempt at concealment, and indeed little notion that there might be anything reprehensible in such customs. Every one did it, why shouldn’t any one? Later experience proved these conditions, as well as nearly 90 per cent. of complete illiteracy, common to all Honduras.
The only other industry of Santa Rosa is the raising of tobacco and the making of a tolerably good cigar, famed throughout Honduras and selling here twenty for a real. Every hut and almost every shop is a cigar factory. The town is four thousand feet above sea-level, giving it a delightful, lazy, satisfied-with-life-just-as-it-is air that partly makes up for its ignorance, disease, and unmorality. The population is largely Indian, unwashed since birth, and with huge hoof-like bare feet devoid of sensation. There is also considerable Spanish blood, generally adulterated, its possessors sometimes shod and wearing nearly white cotton suits and square white straw hats. In intelligence the entire place resembles children without a child’s power of imitation. Except for the snow-white church, the town is entirely one-story, with tile roofs, a ragged flowery plaza, and straight streets, sometimes cobbled, that run off down hill, for the place is built on a meadowy knoll with a fine vista of hills and surrounded by an immensely rich land that would grow almost anything in abundance with a minimum of cultivation.
The one way of getting an early start in Honduras is to make your purchases the night before and eat them raw in the morning. Christmas day had barely dawned, therefore, when I began losing my way among the undulating white rock paths beyond Santa Rosa. Such a country brings home to man his helplessness and unimportance before untamed nature. I wished to be in Tegucigalpa, two hundred miles away, within five days; yet all the wealth of Croesus could not have brought me there in that time. As it was, I had broken the mule-back record, and many is the animal that succumbs to the up and down trails of Honduras. This one might, were such triteness permissible, have been most succinctly characterized by a well-known description of war. It was rougher than any stone-quarry pitched at impossible angles, and the attraction of gravity for my burden passed belief. To this I had been forced to add not merely a roll of silver reales but my Christmas dinner, built up about the nucleus of a can of what announced itself outwardly as pork and beans. Talgua, at eleven, did not seem the fitting scene for so solemn a ceremony, and I hobbled on, first over a tumble-down stone bridge, then by a hammock-bridge to which one climbed high above the river by a notched stick and of which two thirds of the cross-slats were missing, while the rest cracked or broke under the 185 pounds to which I subjected them.
I promised myself to pitch camp at the very next clear stream. But the hammock-bridge once passed there began a heart-breaking climb into bone-dry hills, rolling with broken stones, and palpitating with the heat of an unshaded tropical sun. Several times I had perished of thirst before I came to a small sluggish stream, only to find its water deep blue with some pollution. In the end I was forced to overlook this drawback and, finding a sort of natural bathtub among the blazing rocks, fell upon what after all proved to be a porkless feast. The doctor’s treatment had reduced the swelling in foot and ankle, but the wound itself was more painful than ever and called for frequent soaking. In midafternoon I passed a second village, as somnolent as the belly-gorged zopilotes that half-jumped, half-flew sluggishly out of the way as I advanced. Here was a bit of fairly flat and shaded going, with another precarious hammock-bridge, then an endless woods with occasional sharp stony descents to some brawling but most welcome stream, with stepping-stones or without. Thus far I had seen barely a human being all the day, but as the shades of evening grew I passed several groups of arrieros who blasted my hopes of reaching Gracias that night, but who informed me that just beyond the “rio grande” was a casita where I might spend the night.
It was sunset when I came to the “great river,” a broad and noisy though only waist-deep stream with two sheer, yet pine-clad rock cliffs more striking than the Palisades of the Hudson. A crescent moon was peering over them when I passed the swinging bridge swaying giddily to and fro high above the stream, but on the steep farther bank it lighted up only a cruel disappointment. For the “casita” was nothing but a roof on wabbly legs, a public rest-house where I might swing my hammock but go famished to bed. I pushed on in quest of a more human habitation. The “road” consisted of a dozen paths shining white in the moonlight and weaving in and out among each other. No sign of man appeared, and my foot protested vehemently. I concluded to be satisfied with water to drink and let hunger feed upon itself. But now it was needed, not a trickle appeared. Once I fancied I heard a stream babbling below and tore my way through the jungle down a sharp slope, but I had only caught the echo of the distant river. It was well on into the night when the welcome sound again struck my ear. This time it was real, and I fought my way down through clutching undergrowth and stone heaps to a stream, sluggish and blue in color, but welcome for all that, to swing my hammock among stone heaps from two elastic saplings, for it was just my luck to have found the one spot in Honduras where there were no trees large enough to furnish shelter. Luckily nothing worse than a heavy dew fell. Now and then noisy boisterous bands of natives passed along the trail from their Christmas festivities in the town ahead. But whereas a Mexican highway at this hour would have been overrun with drunken peons more or less dangerous to “gringoes,” drink seemed to have made these chiefly amorous. Still I took good care to arrange myself for the night quietly, if only to be able to sleep undisturbed. Once, somewhere in the darkest hours, a drove of cattle stampeded down the slope near me, but even as I reached for my weapon I found it was not the band of peons from a dream of which I had awakened. The spot was some 1500 feet lower than Santa Rosa, but still so sharp and penetrating is the chill of night in this region in contrast to the blazing, sweating days that I did not sleep a moment soundly after the first hour of evening.
An hour’s walk next morning brought me to Gracias, a slovenly, nothing-to-do-but-stare hamlet of a few hundred inhabitants. After I had eaten all the chief hut could supply, I set about looking for the shoemaker my already aged Guatemalan Oxfords needed so badly. I found the huts where several of them lived, but not where any of them worked. The first replied from his hammock that he was sick, the second had gone to Tegucigalpa, the third was “somewhere about town if you have the patience to wait.” Which I did for an hour or more, and was rewarded with his turning up to inform me that he was not planning to begin his labors again so soon, for only yesterday had been Christmas.
Over the first hill and river beyond, I fell in with a woman who carried on an unbroken conversation as well as a load on her head, from the time she accepted the first cigar until we had waded the thigh-deep “rio grande” and climbed the rocky bank to her hut and garden. At first she had baldly refused to allow her picture to be taken. But so weak-willed are these people of Honduras that a white man of patience can in time force them to do his bidding by sheer force of will, by merely looking long and fixedly at them. Many the “gringo” who has misused this power in Central America. Before we reached her home she had not only posed but insisted on my stopping to photograph her with her children “dressed up” as befitted so extraordinary an occasion. Her garden was unusually well supplied with fruit and vegetables, and the rice boiled in milk she served was the most savory dish I had tasted in Honduras. She refused payment, but insisted on my waiting until the muleteers she had charged for their less sumptuous dinner were gone, so they should not discover her unpatriotic favoritism.
During the afternoon there was for a time almost level going, grassy and soft, across gently dipping meadows on which I left both mule-trains and pedestrians behind. Houses were rare, and the fall of night threatened to leave me alone among vast whining pine forests where the air was already chill. In the dusk, however, I came upon the hut of Pablo Morales and bespoke posada. He growled a surly permission and addressed hardly a word to me for hours thereafter. The place was the most filthy, quarrelsome, pig and chicken overrun stop on the trip, and when at last I prepared to swing my hammock inside the hut the sulky host informed me that he only permitted travelers the corredor. Two other guests—ragged, soil-encrusted arrieros—were already housed within, but there were at least some advantages in swinging my own net outside from the rafters of the eaves. Pigs jolted against me now and then and before I had entirely fallen asleep I was disturbed by a procession of dirty urchins, each carrying a blazing pine stick, who came one by one to look me over. I was just settling down again when Pablo himself appeared, an uncanny figure in the dancing light of his flaming torch. He had heard that I could “put people on paper,” and would I put his wife on paper in return for his kindness in giving me posada? Yes, in the morning. Why couldn’t I do it now? He seemed strangely eager, for a man accustomed to set mañana as his own time of action. His surly indifference had changed to an annoying solicitude, and he forced upon me first a steaming tortilla, then a native beverage, and finally came with a large cloth hammock in which I passed the night more comfortably than in my own open-work net.
In the morning heavy mountain clouds and a swirling mist made photography impossible, but my host was not of the grade of intelligence that made this simple explanation possible. He led the way into the windowless hut, in a corner of which lay a woman of perhaps thirty in a dog-litter of a bed enclosed by curtains hung from the rafters. The walls were black with coagulated smoke. The woman, yellow and emaciated with months of fever, groaned distressingly as the curtains were drawn aside, but her solicitous husband insisted on propping her up in bed and holding her with an arm about the shoulders while I “put them both on paper.” His purpose, it turned out, was to send the picture to the shrine of “la Virgen de los Remedios” that she might cure the groaning wife of her ailment, and he insisted that it must show “bed and all and the color of her face” that the Virgin might know what was required of her. I went through the motions of taking a photograph and explained as well as was possible why it could not be delivered at once, with the added information to soften his coming disappointment that the machine sometimes failed. The fellow merely gathered the notion that I was but a sorry magician at best, who had my diabolical hocuspocus only imperfectly under control, and he did not entirely succeed in keeping his sneers invisible. I offered quinine and such other medicines as were to be found in my traveling case, but he had no faith in worldly remedies.
By nine the day was brilliant. There was an unusual amount of level grassy trail, though steep slopes were not lacking. During the morning I passed several bands of ragged soldiers meandering northward in rout order and some distance behind them their bedraggled women and children, all afoot and carrying their entire possessions on their heads and backs. Frequently a little wooden cross or a heap of stones showed where some traveler had fallen by the wayside, perhaps at the hands of his fellow-man; for the murder rate, thanks largely to drink and vendettas, is high in Honduras. It might be less if assassins faced the death penalty, instead of being merely shut within prisons from which an active man could soon dig his way to freedom with a pocket-knife, if he did not have the patience to wait a few months until a new revolution brought him release or pardon.
The futility of Honduranean life was illustrated here and there. On some vast hillside capable of producing food for a multitude the eye made out a single milpa, or tiny corn-field, fenced off with huge slabs of mahogany worth easily ten times all the corn the patch could produce in a lifetime—or rather, worth nothing whatever, for a thing is valuable only where it is in demand. At ten I lost the way, found it again, and began an endless, rock-strewn climb upward through pines, tacking more times than I could count, each leg of the ascent a toilsome journey in itself. Not the least painful of road experiences in Honduras is to reach the summit of such a range after hours of heavy labor, to take perhaps a dozen steps along the top of the ridge, and then find the trail pitching headlong down again into a bottomless gorge, from which comes up the joyous sound of a mountain stream that draws the thirsty traveler on at double speed, only to bring him at last to a rude bridge over a precipitous, rock-sided river impossible to reach before attacking the next slope staring him in the face.
Luckily I foraged an imitation dinner in San Juan, a scattering of mud huts on a broad upland plain, most of the adult inhabitants of which were away at some work or play in the surrounding hills. Cattle without number dotted the patches of unlevel meadows, but not a drop of milk was to be had. Roosters would have made the night a torture, yet three eggs rewarded the canvassing of the entire hamlet. These it is always the Honduranean custom to puncture with a small hole before dropping into hot water, no doubt because there was no other way of getting the universal uncleanliness into them. Nor did I ever succeed in getting them more than half cooked. Once I offered an old woman an extra real if she would boil them a full three minutes without puncturing them. She asserted that without a hole in the end “the water could not get in to cook them,” but at length solemnly promised to follow my orders implicitly. When the eggs reappeared they were as raw as ever, though somewhat warm, and each had its little punctured hole. I took the cook to task and she assured me vociferously that “they broke themselves.” Apparently there was some superstition connected with the matter which none dared violate. At any rate I never succeeded in being served un-holed eggs in all rural Honduras.
Not only have these people of the wilderness next to nothing to eat, but they are too indolent to learn to cook what they have. The thick, doughy tortillas and half-boiled black beans, accompanied by black, unstrained coffee with dirty crude sugar and without milk, were not merely monotonous, but would have been fatal to civilized man of sedentary habits. Only the constant toil and sweat, and the clear water of mountain stream offset somewhat the evil effects under which even a horseman would probably have succumbed. The inhabitants of the Honduranean wilds are distinctly less human in their habits than the wild men of the Malay Peninsula. For the latter at least build floors of split bamboo above the ground. Without exaggeration the people of this region were more uncleanly than their gaunt and yellow curs, for the latter carefully picked a spot to lie in while the human beings threw themselves down anywhere and nonchalantly motioned to a guest to sit down or drop his bundle among fresh offal. They literally never washed, except by accident, and handled food and filth alternately with a child-like blandness.
I was just preparing to leave San Juan when a woman came from a neighboring hut to request my assistance at a child-birth! In this region all “gringoes” have the reputation of being physicians, and the inhabitants will not be undeceived. I forcibly tore myself away and struck for the surrounding wilderness.
From soon after noon until sunset I climbed incessantly among tumbled rocks without seeing a human being. A cold wind howled through a vast pine forest of the highest altitude of my Honduranean journey—more than six thousand feet above sea-level. Night fell in wild solitude, but I could only plod on, for to sleep out at this height would have been dangerous. Luckily a corner of moon lighted up weirdly a moderately wide trail. I had tramped an hour or more into the night when a flickering light ahead among the trees showed what might have been a camp of bandits, but which proved to be only that of a group of muleteers, who had stacked their bales of merchandise around three sides under an ancient roof on poles and rolled up in their blankets close to the blazing wood fire they had built to the leeward of it.
They gave no sign of offering me place and I marched on into the howling night. Perhaps four miles beyond I made out a cluster of habitations pitched on the summit and slope of a hill leaning toward the trail with nothing above it on any side to break the raging wind. An uproar of barking dogs greeted my arrival, and it was some time before an inmate of one of the dark and silent huts summoned up courage to peer out upon me. He emerged armed with a huge stick and led the way to a miserable hovel on the hilltop, where he beat on the door and called out that an “hombrecito” sought posada. This opened at last and I entered a mud room in one end of which a fire of sticks blazed fitfully. A woman of perhaps forty, though appearing much older, as is the case with most women of Honduras, lay on a wooden bed and a girl of ten huddled among rags near the fire. I asked for food and the woman ordered the girl to heat me black coffee and tortillas. The child was naked to the waist, though the bitter cold wind howled with force through the hut, the walls and especially the gables and roof of which were far from whole. The woman complained of great pain in her right leg, and knowing she would otherwise groan and howl the night through in the hope of attracting the Virgin’s attention, I induced her to swallow two sedative pills. The smoke made me weep as I swung my hammock from two soot-blackened rafters, but the fire soon went out and I awoke from the first doze shivering until the hut shook. The temperature was not low compared with our northern winters, but the wind carried a penetrating chill that reached the marrow of the bones. I rose and tried unsuccessfully to relight the fire. The half-naked girl proved more skilful and I sat huddled on a stool over the fire, alternately weeping with the smoke and all but falling into the blaze as I dozed. The pills had little effect on my hostess. I gave her three more, but her Honduranean stomach was evidently zinc-lined and she groaned and moaned incessantly. I returned to my hammock and spent several dream-months at the North Pole before I was awakened at first cockcrow by the old woman kneeling on the earth floor before a lithograph of the Virgin surrounded by withered pine branches, wailing a singsong prayer. She left off at length with the information that her only hope of relief was to make a pilgrimage to the “Virgen de los Remedios,” and ordered the girl to prepare coffee. I paid my bill of two reales and gave the girl one for herself, evidently the largest sum she had ever possessed, if indeed she remained long in possession of it after I took my hobbling and shivering departure.
A cold and wind-swept hour, all stiffly up or down, brought me to Esperanza, near which I saw the first wheeled vehicle of Honduras, a contraption of solid wooden wheels behind gaunt little oxen identical with those of northwest Spain even to the excruciating scream of its greaseless axle. In the outskirts two ragged, hoof-footed soldiers sprang up from behind the bushes of a hillside and came down upon me, waving their muskets and screaming:
“A’onde va? D’onde viene? Have you a pass to go through our department?”
“Yes, from your consul in Guatemala.”
They did not ask to read it, perhaps for a reason, but permitted me to pass; to my relief, for the old woman had announced that smallpox was raging in her town of Yamaranguila and its people were not allowed to enter Esperanza. This proved to be a place of considerable size, of large huts scattered over a broad grassy plain in a sheltered valley, with perhaps five thousand inhabitants but not a touch of civilization. Crowds of boys and dirty ragged soldiers followed me, grinning and throwing salacious comments as I wandered from house to house trying to buy food. At a corner of the plaza the comandante called to me from his hut. I treated him with the haughty air of a superior, with frequent reference to my “orders from the government,” and he quickly subsided from patronizing insolence to humility and sent a soldier to lead me to “where food is prepared for strangers.” Two ancient crones, pottering about a mud stove in an open-work reed kitchen through which the mountain wind swept chillingly, half-cooked an enormous slab of veal, boiled a pot of the ubiquitous black coffee, and scraped together a bit of stale bread, or more exactly cake, for pan dulce was the only species that the town afforded. A dish of tomatoes of the size of small cherries proved far more appetizing, after they had been well washed, but the astonishment with which the aged pair watched me eat them suggested that the tradition that held this fruit poison still reigns in Esperanza.
Back once more in the comandancia I resolved to repay the soldiers scattered about town for their insolence in the one way painful to the Honduranean—by making them exert themselves. Displaying again my “government order,” I demanded a photograph of the garrison of Esperanza with the comandante, its generals, colonels, lieutenants, and all the lesser fry at the head; and an imperative command soon brought the entire force of fifty or more hurrying barefoot and startled, their ancient muskets under their arms, from the four somnolent corners of the city. I kept them maneuvering a half-hour or so, ostensibly for photographic reasons, while all the populace looked on, and the reos, or department prisoners in their chains, formed a languid group leaning on their shovels at the edge of the plaza waiting until their guards should be returned to them.
At ten I reshouldered my stuff and marched out in a still cold, cloudy, upland day, the wondering inhabitants of Esperanza staring awe-stricken after me until I disappeared from view. A few miles out I met two pure Indians, carrying oranges in nets on their backs, the supporting strap across their foreheads. To my question they admitted the fruit was for sale, though it is by no means uncommon in Central America for countrymen to refuse to sell on the road produce they are carrying to town for that purpose. I asked for a real’s worth. Luckily they misunderstood, for the price was “two hands for a medio,” and as it was I had to leave lying on the grass several of the ten fine large oranges one of the aborigines had counted on his fingers and accepted a two-and-a-half cent piece for with a “Muchas gracias, amigo.” Farther on I met scores of these short, thick-set Indians, of both sexes and all ages, straining along over mountain trails for forty or fifty miles from their colonies to town each with at most a hundred and fifty oranges they would there scarcely sell for so high a price.
Beyond a fordable, ice-cold stream a fairly good road changed to an atrocious mountain trail in a labyrinth of tumbled pine-clad ridges and gullies, on which I soon lost my way in a drizzling rain. The single telegraph wire came to my rescue, jumping lightly from moss-grown stick to tall slender tree-trunk across vast chasms down into and out of which I had to slip and slide and stumble pantingly upward in pursuit. Before dark I was delighted to fall upon a trail again, though not with its condition, for it was generally perpendicular and always thick with loose stones. A band of arrieros cooking their scanty supper under a shelter tent asserted there were houses some two leagues on, but for hours I hobbled over mountains of pure stone, my maltreated feet wincing at every step, without verifying the assertion. Often the descents were so steep I had to pick each footstep carefully in the darkness, and more than one climb required the assistance of my hands. A swift stream all but swept me off my feet, and in the stony climb beyond I lost both trail and telegraph wire and, after floundering about for some time in a swamp, was forced to halt and swing my hammock between two saplings under enormous sheer cliffs that looked like great medieval castles in the night, their white faces spotted by the trees that found foothold on them. Happily I had dropped well down out of the clouds that hover about Esperanza and the cold mountain wind was now much tempered. The white mountain wall rising sheer from my very hips was also somewhat sheltering, though it was easy to dream of rocks being dropped from aloft upon me.
I had clambered a steep and rocky three hours next morning before I came upon the first evidences of humanity, a hut on a little tableland, with all the customary appurtenances and uncleanliness. Black unstrained coffee and tortillas of yellow hue gradually put strength enough in my legs to enable them to push me on through bottomless rocky barrancas, and at length, beyond the hamlet of Santa María, up one of the highest climbs of the trip to the long crest of a ridge thick with whispering pines and with splendid views of the “Great Depths,” dense in woodland, on either side as far as the eye could reach. Muleteers passed frequently, often carrying on their own backs a bundle of the Santa Rosa cigars with which their animals were laden. Except for her soldiers, accustomed to “show off” before their fellows, every person I had met in Honduras had been kindly and courteous—if dirty—and never with a hint of coveting my meager hoard. Beggars seemed as unknown as robbers—perhaps from lack of initiative and energy. From Esperanza on, the Indian boys I met driving mules or carrying nets of oranges all folded their hands before them like a Buddhist at prayer when they approached me, but instead of mumbling some request for alms, as I expected, they greeted me with an almost obsequious “Adiós” and a faint smile. How the “little red schoolhouse” is lacking in this wooded mountainland! Not merely was the immense majority entirely illiterate, but very few of them had even reached the stage of desiring to learn. A paucity of intelligence and initiative made all intercourse monotonously the same. The greeting was never a hearty, individual phrase of the speaker’s own choosing, but always the invariable “Adiós, Buenos días, tardes or noche,” even though I had already addressed some inquiry to them. Replies to questions of distance were as stereotyped, with the diminutive ito beloved of the Central Americans tacked on wherever possible:
“Larguita ‘stá! A la vueltita no más! Está cerquita! De día no llega! A la tardecita llega. Ay no masito! A la oracióncita llega—”
Nothing could bring them down from these glittering generalities to a definite statement of distance, in leagues or hours, and to reach a place reported “Just around the little corner” was as apt to mean a half day’s tramp as that it was over the next knoll.
In the aldea of Tutule I fell in with Alberto Suaza, a pleasant appearing, all but white Honduranean, who had once been in the army and was now returning on horseback from some government errand. The hamlet slumbered on a slope of a little leaning valley backed by a wooded mountain ridge, all but a few of the inhabitants being engaged in coffee culture in the communal tract up over the hill when we arrived. Suaza picketed his diminutive animal before the hut of a friend, in which we shared two eggs and coffee and turned in together. Unfortunately I let my companion persuade me against my better judgment to lay aside my hammock and sleep on his “bed,” a sun-dried ox-hide thrown on the earth floor, on my side of which, “because he was more used to hard beds than those señores gringoes,” he spread most of the colchón (mattress)—which consisted of two empty grainsacks. Either these or the painfully thin blanket over us housed a nimble breed I had miraculously escaped thus far on the journey, robbing me of the much-needed sleep the incessant barking of a myriad of dogs, the itching of mosquito bites, the rhinoceros-like throat-noises of the family, and the rock hardness of the floor would probably otherwise have pilfered. The man of the house had stripped stark naked and, wrapping a red blanket about him, lay down on a bare wooden bed to pass the night apparently in perfect comfort. Soft mortals indeed are we of civilized and upholstered lands.
Suaza made no protest when I paid the bill for both, and by seven we were off, he riding his tiny horse until we were out of sight of the town, then dismounting to lead it the rest of the day. He had announced himself the possessor of an immensely rich aunt on whose hacienda we should stop for “breakfast,” and promised we should spend the night either in the gold mine of which she was a chief stockholder or at her home in La Paz, which I gathered to be a great mansion filled with all the gleanings of that lady’s many trips to Europe and the States. I had long since learned the Latin American’s love of personal exaggeration. But Suaza was above the Honduranean average; he not only read with comparative ease but cleaned his finger nails, and I looked forward with some eagerness to a coming oasis of civilization in the hitherto unsoftened wilderness.
It was an ideal day for tramping, cloudy yet bright, with a strong fresh wind almost too cold for sitting still and across a country green and fragrant with endless forest, and after the climb back of Tutule little more than rolling. It was noon before we came upon the new mud-and-tiled house of the cattle-tender of “dear aunty’s” hacienda, and though the meal we enjoyed there was savory by Honduranean standards, it was not so completely Parisian as I had permitted myself to anticipate. That I was allowed to pay for it proved nothing, for the employees of the wealthy frequently show no aversion to accepting personal favors.
Not far beyond we came out on the edge of a tableland with a splendid view of the valley of Comayagua, far below, almost dead level, some ten miles wide and thirty long, deep green everywhere, with cloud shadows giving beautiful color effects across it in the jumble of green mountains with the purple tinge of distance beyond which lay Tegucigalpa. At the same time there began the most laborious descent of the journey, an utterly dry mountain face pitched at an acute angle and made up completely of loose rock, down which we must pick every step and often use our hands to keep from landing with broken bones at the bottom. The new buildings of the mine were in plain sight almost directly below us from the beginning, yet we were a full two hours in zigzagging by short legs straight down the loose-stone slope to them. The American manager was absent, but in the general store of the company I had not only the pleasure of spending an hour in the first thoroughly clean building I had seen in Honduras, but of speaking English, for the two Negro youths in charge of the place were natives of Belize, or British Honduras, and were equally fluent in my own tongue or Spanish, while their superiority in personal condition over the natives was a sad commentary on the boasted advantage of the republican form of government.
The thirsty, rock-sown descent continued, bringing us at last with aching thighs to the level of the vast valley, more than four thousand feet below the lodging-places of the few days past. Suaza mounted his horse and prepared to enter his native La Paz in style. So often had kingly quarters promised me by the self-styled sons of wealth in Latin America gradually degenerated to the monotonous tortilla level of general conditions that I had not been able entirely to disabuse myself of an expectation of disappointment. Sure enough, where the trail broke up into a score of paths among mud huts and pig wallows, my companion paused in the dark to say:
“Perhaps after all it will be better to take you right to my house for to-night. One always feels freer in one’s father’s house. My aunt might be holding some social affair, or be sick or—But we will surely call at her mansion to-morrow, and—”
“Como usted quiera?” I answered, swallowing my disappointment. At least his father’s house should be something above the ordinary.
But to my astonishment we stopped a bit farther on in the suburbs before one of the most miserable mud hovels it had been my misfortune to run across in Honduras, swarming with pigs, yellow curs, and all the multitudinous filth and disarray indigenous to the country. The coldest of welcomes greeted us, the frowsy, white-bearded father in the noisome doorway replying to the son’s query of why there was no light with a crabbed:
“If you want light why don’t you come in the daytime?”
My companion told a boy of the family to go buy a candle, and his scrawny, unkempt mother bounded out of the hut with the snarl of a miser:
“What do you want a candle for?”
The boy refused to go and Suaza tied his horse to a bush and went in quest of one himself. I mentioned supper, hinting at my willingness to pay for anything that could be furnished, but to each article I suggested came the monotonous, indifferent Honduranean answer, “No hay.” After much growling and an extended quarrel with her son, the woman set on a corner of a wabbly-legged table, littered with all manner of unsavory junk, two raw eggs, punctured and warmed, a bowl of hot water and a stale slab of pan dulce, a cross between poor bread and worse cake. I wandered on into the town in the hope of finding some imitation of a hotel. But though the place had a population of several thousand, it was made up exclusively of mud huts only two or three of which were faintly lighted by pine-splinters. The central plaza was a barren, unlighted pasture, a hut on the corner of which was reputed to be a shop, but when I had beaten my way into it I found nothing for sale except bottles of an imitation wine at monopoly prices. In my disgust I pounded my way into every hovel that was said to be a tienda. Not an edible thing was to be found. One woman claimed to have fruit for sale, and after collecting a high price for them she went out into the patio and picked a half-dozen perfectly green oranges.
“But what do people eat and drink in La Paz? Grass and water?” I demanded.
But the bedraggled population was not even amenable to crude sarcasm, and the only reply I got was a lazy, child-like:
“Oh, each one keeps what he needs to eat in his own house.”
Here was a town of a size to have been a place of importance in other lands, yet even the mayor lived with his pigs on an earth floor. Statistics of population have little meaning in Honduras. The place recalled a cynical “gringo’s” description of a similar town, “It has a hundred men, two hundred women, and 100,000 chuchos “—the generic term in Central America for yellow curs of all colors. Why every family houses such a swarm of these miserable beasts is hard to guess. Mere apathy, no doubt, for they are never fed; nor, indeed, are the pigs that also overrun every household and live, like the dogs, on the offal of the patio or backyard that serves as place of convenience. They have at least the doubtful virtue of partly solving the sewer problem, which is not a problem to Honduraneans. A tortilla or other food held carelessly is sure to be snatched by some cat, pig, or dog; a bundle left unwatched for a moment is certain to be rooted about the floor or deposited with filth. These people utterly lack any notion of improvement. A child or an animal, for instance, climbs upon the table or into a dish of food. When the point is reached at which it is unavoidable, the person nearest shouts, throws whatever is handy, or kicks at the offender; but though the same identical performance is repeated a score of times during a single meal, there is never any attempt to correct the culprit, to drive it completely off, or remove the threatened dish from the danger zone. A people inhabiting a land that might be a garden spot of the earth drift through their miserable lives in identically the same fashion as their gaunt and mangy curs.
There was a great gathering of the neighboring clans in the Suaza hut next morning, while my companion of the day before enlarged upon what he fancied he knew about his distinguished guest. Among those who crowded the place were several men of education, in the Honduranean sense,—about equal to that of a poorly trained American child in the fourth grade. But there was not one of them that did not show a monkey curiosity and irresponsibility in handling every article in my pack; my sweater—”Ay qué lindo!” my papers—”How beautiful!” an extremely ordinary shirt—”How soft and fine! How costly!” and “How much did this cost?—and that?” Suaza displayed my medicine-case to the open-mouthed throng—and would I give mother some pills for her colic, and would I please photograph each one of the family—and so on to the end of patience. There was no mention made of the wealthy aunt and her mansion after the day dawned. The invitation to spend a few days, “as many as you like,” amid the luxuries of Paris and the Seven Seas had tapered down to the warmed eggs and black coffee, the only real food I ate being that I had bought in a house-to-house canvass in the morning. I had distributed pills to most of the family and several neighbors and photographed them, at the request of the man of many promises, had paid his bills on the road since our meeting; while I prepared my pack, he requested me to send him six prints each of the pictures, some postals of New York, a pair of pajamas such as I carried, “and any other little things I might think he would like,” including long weekly letters, and as I rose to take my leave and asked what I owed him, he replied with a bland and magnanimous smile:
“You owe me nothing whatever, señor,—only to mamá,” and dear mamá collected about what a first-class hotel would have for the same length of time.